Why ashes?

The history of Ash Wednesday

Catholics are pretty easy to spot on Ash Wednesday when literally wearing their faith on their forehead in the form of a cross of ashes. And there are many of them to be spotted, according to the website AmericanCatholic.org that reported Mass attendance on Ash Wednesday is higher than any other holy day of the year, other than Christmas.

The practice of sprinkling one’s head with ashes as a penitential act appears as early as the Old Testament—as described by Mordecai, Job and Daniel—and has been a formal custom of the Church marking Lent since the 11th century.

“When we receive ashes we are participating in an ancient practice that was first associated with entry into the Order of Penitents,” Archbishop Samuel Aquila explained in a previous Denver Catholic Register column (“Lent beyond the ashes,” March 4, 2014).

The movement known as the Penitents goes back to the fourth century and came into existence for those who had committed a serious sin after their baptism. The penitent would confess their sin, receive a penance from the bishop or his delegate and then be enrolled in the order, the archbishop explained.

When they entered, penitents would receive ashes on their head, be given a prominent location to occupy in the church, and put on special garments to mark their state of penance. Penance could include pilgrimage to holy sites, constructing and repairing churches, and caring for the poor and sick.

“The penances could last a few years so that a true, deep conversion of the heart could occur,” he wrote.

As the devotion to penance and repentance for sin grew, so did the formal liturgical rite.

“There can be no doubt that the custom of distributing the ashes to all the faithful arose from a devotional imitation of the practice observed in the case of public penitents,” according to the Catholic Encyclopedia.

The first record of the formal “dies cinerum,” or “day of ashes,” was described in the earliest existing copies of the Gregorian Sacramentary ritual book and is believed to date back to at least the eighth century, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia.

On this day, the faithful, according to ancient custom, were encouraged to approach the altar before Mass, and there a priest, after dipping his thumb into blessed ashes, marked their foreheads with sign of the cross, saying: “Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.”

The ashes used in the ceremony were made by burning the remains of the palms blessed on Palm Sunday the previous year, a practice that continues today. The ashes were sprinkled with holy water and fumigated with incense. A penitential procession often followed the rite of the distribution of the ashes.

At the beginning of the 11th century, English homilist Abbot Aelfric of Eynsham implied the use of ashes by believers before Lent saying, “in the books both in the Old Law and in the New that the men who repented of their sins covered themselves with ashes and clothed their bodies with sackcloth. Now let us do this little at the beginning of our Lent that we strew ashes upon our heads to signify that we ought to repent of our sins during the Lenten fast.”

After the Synod of Beneventum in 1091, Pope Urban II established the use of ashes on the Wednesday before Lent for Catholics everywhere.

“When we receive ashes, we are engaging in a form of penance that visibly humbles us,” Archbishop Aquila wrote. “We acknowledge that we are sinners, unfaithful to the Lord and the commandments he has given us.”

Check parish bulletins and websites for Mass schedules on Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday
Feb. 18 | Marks the beginning of Lent

COMING UP: Team Samaritan cyclist goes ‘Everesting’ for the homeless and hungry

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

When it comes to the daily sufferings of those who are homeless, there’s nothing like a 29,029-foot bike ride to keep things in perspective.

That’s exactly what Corbin Clement will be doing this Saturday, June 19, with a couple of his riding buddies as they attempt an “Everesting” ride to raise money for the Samaritan House homeless shelter in Denver. Starting at Witter Gulch Road in Evergreen, the three riders will climb Squaw Pass Road to a point in Clear Creek County and ride back down the hill for over eight laps, which amounts to roughly 190 miles in distance and the equivalent of the elevation of Mt. Everest in terms of vertical climbing – hence the name “Everesting.” Their goal is to complete the feat in 20 hours or less.

Oh, and they can’t sleep. It is, indeed, just as crazy as it sounds. Those who aren’t avid cyclists might be wondering, “How in the world do you train for something like this?” 
 
“For training, it’s been just more or less ride as much as possible,” Clement told the Denver Catholic. “The training is structured around endurance, and that’s of course what Everesting is. It’s just a lot of peddling. So, a lot of my training so far has just been trying to ride as much as possible and ride longer high elevation rides.” 

In March, an Irish cyclist set the world record for Everesting when he completed the feat in six hours and 40 minutes. Clement isn’t trying to set a record, but regardless, it’s quite a feat to undertake, even for a seasoned athlete like him, whose pedigree includes snowboarding and rock climbing. 

“Our ride will be the same thing, but it’ll be pretty different,” Clement said. “We don’t have any sort of special bikes or super focused diet or a really regimented plan or a crew that’s very well-instructed on how we’re going to tackle this. I’ve read a couple of things to just kind of make it into a party — have friends come out to support you, get people to join you on certain laps…that’s kind of the approach we’re taking.” 

Clement has already raised $5,200 for Samaritan House, with a current goal of $8,000. This is Clement’s first year riding for Team Samaritan, but his dad, Kevin, has ridden for the team for several years. When his dad offered to give him an extra kit and uniform, Clement accepted, but didn’t want to take it without doing something help the cause. He could’ve simply opted for a nice ride in the countryside, but he chose to do something a bit more challenging.  

Corbin Clement used to experience the challenges that homeless people face on a daily basis when commuting through downtown Denver to work on his bike. This Saturday, he will raise money for Samaritan House homeless shelter by “Everesting,” a 190-mile bike ride that is the equivalent of the elevation of Mt. Everest in terms of vertical climbing. (Photo provided)

“For some reason, the Everesting idea popped into my head,” he explained. “I think it’s one of those things that has a little bit of shock value for people who hear about it. It’s certainly something that’s gained more popularity and visibility in the last couple of years with endurance athletes. I wanted to choose something that would actually be a challenge for myself and something that I’d have to work towards.” 

Clement currently resides in Utah, but he used to live in Denver and commute by bike to work every day. During those rides to his office, which was located near Samaritan House, he would pass many homeless people and have conversations with them. This experience was also a motivating factor for his Everesting attempt for Team Samaritan. 

“It’s very different when you’re on a bike versus in a car because you’re right there,” Clement said. “If you stop at a stoplight and a homeless person is on the corner, whether or not they’re panhandling or something like that, you hear the conversations, or you’ll have a conversation with them. There are things you smell or you hear or you see that you just never would if you were in a car. So, it kind of made sense, too, with the biking aspect. It’s part of my community that I’ve lived and worked in for a very long time.” 

Clement’s Everesting attempt is one event in a series of endurance event’s he’s doing over the summer that culminates with the Leadville 100, a single-day mountain bike race across the Colorado Rockies. In that race, he will be riding to support young adults diagnosed with cancer by raising funds for First Descents.  

Both causes are near to Clement’s heart, and he said that while his Everesting attempt will be a form of “suffering,” it pales in comparison to what the homeless face day in and day out. This is ultimately why he’s riding and raising funds for Team Samaritan. 

“Any time we see a homeless person or people who have to live on the streets,” Clement said, “That is true suffering — true endurance — with no end in sight.” 

To learn more about Corbin’s fundraising efforts or to donate, click here.